Before quarterback Jay Cutler can flourish in new coordinator Mike Martz's offense, he'll have to get better protection than he did last year.
Mike Tice takes over as line coach for Harry Hiestand, whose group allowed 35 sacks last year and struggled to protect Cutler or create running room for the ground game, which averaged a mediocre 4.0 yards per attempt. There is expected to be more pressure on the offensive line this year in the passing game, considering Martz's frequent use of five- and seven-step drops.
Considering that by the end of last season 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams had already moved over from right tackle to replace Orlando Pace at left tackle, there hasn't been a lot of change in personnel on the offensive line, but there have been some alterations.
Last year's left guard, Frank Omiyale, will start at right tackle, which is his more natural position. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are back for another year together – this will be their sixth season playing side by side – but there will be a new left guard, although it could be Josh Beekman, a 16-game starter there in 2008.
Tice is hopeful for continued improvement, which he said was apparent toward the end of last season.
"The first thing I did [after getting hired in January] was grade the line as if I was the coach last season," Tice said. "The one thing that did stand out to me is that they got better as the season went on. A couple of the guys were playing pretty decent football by the end of the season. I think that's one of the reasons the team finished up pretty good last year. The biggest thing I saw was that they got better."
Kreutz might be the key to continued improvement in 2010. He hobbled through a tough '09 season with an injured Achilles tendon that required offseason surgery and kept him sidelined until the last days of OTA practices. But he is expected to be 100 percent by the start of the season, his 13th, all with the Bears.
C Olin Kreutz
"Olin's one of our guys," coach Lovie Smith said of the 12-year starter and six-time Pro Bowler. "For you that have been around here a while, you know what he means and his role and that leadership. Of course, this is a new offense and a new coach for him – a lot of different things. But he's back, he's on pace, and he feels real good looking forward to the future."
Kreutz has missed a total of one start in the past nine seasons, and that was way back in 2002, seven days after he underwent an appendectomy. It's better for everyone when Kreutz is on the field, as Cutler pointed out after the 33-year-old veteran returned to OTAs.
"It was getting bad because he wants to be in there," Cutler said. "He gets a little bored, and when he gets bored he starts picking on guys. But he's going to be the anchor of the offensive line. He has been for years, so we're not worried about him."
CAMP CALENDAR: Players report to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois, on July 29. The first practice is at 3:00 p.m., Friday, July 30. Camp concludes after a 3:00 p.m. practice on Thursday, Aug. 19. On Friday, Aug. 6, the Bears head north for a 7:00 p.m. practice at Soldier Field before returning to ONU for a Sunday night practice.
NOTES AND QUOTES
Smith hasn't decided exactly how he and coordinator Rod Marinelli are going to use DE Julius Peppers, their expensive new weapon. Or, if he has, he isn't letting on just yet.
Peppers may play exclusively on one side or the other, or he may go back and forth, seeking mismatches that will force opponents to double-team him. But however he's used, Peppers is expected to give the Bears a pass-rushing presence on the edge they haven't seen since franchise sack leader Richard Dent was in his heyday. And Peppers is already providing a presence in the locker room.
"He has done everything we've asked him to do," Smith said. "It's hard sometimes for a guy to move into a leadership role that quick. But that's exactly what he's done. We can't wait to take this next step with him. We have a lot of things in store for him that we haven't done in the past, when you have a special player like that. He's bought in completely, and I think the Chicago Bears fans will love what they're going to see from him." ...
He turns 31 a week before training camp starts, which makes Rashied Davis the old man in a youthful Bears wide receiver corps that has speed to burn but not a great deal of experience.
Young and old, experienced and inexperienced, all were on a level playing field during an offseason spent learning a new scheme under Martz. And the learning process, which at times was a little overwhelming over the summer, will continue through training camp.
"Sometimes our heads are spinning and we're like, 'What do I have to do on this one? What do I have on that one?'" Davis said last month at the end of OTAs. "We're thinking, 'OK, did he call this one or did he call that? Am I hot? Am I whatever?' Whatever the deal is, you're always thinking when he throws a lot of stuff at you. But I understand why he throws a lot of stuff at you. It makes you a better player in the long run." ...
With Martz calling plays, the Bears are expected to throw more and run less, but they expect to run more effectively than last season, when they averaged just 4.0 yards per carry and were 29th in rushing yards per game (89.3).
The addition of free-agent signee Chester Taylor from Minnesota gives the Bears another quality ball carrier, but they're also expecting better things from incumbent Matt Forte, who was a disappointment in '09 when an injury hindered him for part of the season.
"Like with all of our new additions, Chester has been what we thought he would be, what we've seen him be with that team up north," Smith said following OTAs. "And Matt Forte has really, really looked good. Of course, he's healthy now. We're anxious to get back because we think it's going to be something special." ...
Cutler is not among those who favor a regular-season expansion to 18 games, as has been discussed recently.
"I like the format the way it is," Cutler said. "But it's not going to be up to us. It's just [part of] the CBA, and we'll see what they work out. It's a long season as it is right now. Putting two more games on top of it, you'd have to expand the rosters, you'd have to do some other stuff to get players to go for it."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"If you talk to all our receivers, most of them have a smile on their face, most of the tight ends and running backs. It's going to be a lot of fun." – Coach Lovie Smith on new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme.
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